Monday, December 14, 2009

Impressive New Views of the Southern Sky, in Infrared

"VISTA: Pioneering New Survey Telescope Starts Work"
ESO Press Release (December 13, 2009)

"A new telescope — VISTA (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) — has just started work at ESO's Paranal Observatory and has made its first release of pictures. VISTA is a survey telescope working at infrared wavelengths and is the world's largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky. Its large mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors will reveal a completely new view of the southern sky. Spectacular new images of the Flame Nebula, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy and the Fornax Galaxy Cluster show that it is working extremely well.

"VISTA is the latest telescope to be added to ESO's Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. It is housed on the peak adjacent to the one hosting the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) and shares the same exceptional observing conditions. VISTA's main mirror is 4.1 metres across and is the most highly curved mirror of this size and quality ever made — its deviations from a perfect surface are less than a few thousandths of the thickness of a human hair — and its construction and polishing presented formidable challenges.

"VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 universities in the United Kingdom [1] led by Queen Mary, University of London and became...."

The first photo links to a page where you can go to a higher-resolution graphic. The image on the left is the Flame Nebula, NGC 2024, in visible light. The one on the right is the Flame Nebula in infrared, with visible colors substituted for different wavelengths.

This photo is the flame nebula, too: the first VISTA image released, showing more of the nebula's surroundings. As with the first one in this post, it links to a page with some information and a link to a higher-resolution image.

The ESO press release answers the question, "so what?" -

"...Because VISTA is a large telescope that also has a large field of view it can both detect faint sources and also cover wide areas of sky quickly. Each VISTA image captures a section of sky covering about ten times the area of the full Moon and ... will reveal vast numbers of new objects and allow the creation of far more complete inventories of rare and exotic objects in the southern sky...."

Which, for astronomers and people interested in the universe, is a pretty big deal.

Related post, with more about ESO (European Southern Observatory):

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